Whether you’re writing a short story, long-fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, at some point in your education, you will likely be faced with the challenge of creative writing. You may do it because it’s required in your English or literature classes, or you may do it simply because you enjoy it. You may even decide to take it to the next level, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing, and consequently pursuing online journal or book publication.
However you relate to it, creative writing can be an enjoyable, rewarding craft. But that doesn’t mean it always comes easy. Whether creative writing falls outside of your comfort zone, or you aren’t sure how to get started, or you’re just working through a nasty case of writer’s block, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your craft.
If you’re interested in earning a writing degree, start with The 15 Best Online Bachelor’s in Writing Programs.
If you’re just looking for a few good tips, below are some tried and true methods that will help you take your creative writing to the next level.
1. If you don’t read, you can’t write
If you really want to write, you need to read. Sure, at any time you could sit down and, having never read a poem, write a book of poems, or having never read a novel, write your own out of thin air, but here’s the thing: they would probably be awful. If you want to be a great writer, or even just a marginally good writer, you have to read. You have to know what has been done and what people are doing now to gain any sense of what you should be doing.
And don’t limit yourself to one style or medium. Spend time with contemporary short stories and poetry; look into plot-driven horror, character-driven pieces, “the masters,” and rising contemporary authors; explore journals, magazines, and blogs. Find out what you enjoy and learn what people are writing and publishing right now. For a few quality online journals, check out:
2. Conduct research
Don’t just read other stories or poems. Research a variety of media for facts and ideas that can be incorporated into your writing. Many writers keep a running bibliography of sources and reference texts that they’ve come across in their research. You may want to do the same. Remember, even if you’re writing make-believe, it still needs to be believable.
3. Find your voice
Don’t try to be Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Don’t get hung up on Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe. Those writers had rules, values, tastes, and entire worldviews that supported their creative processes. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Write in your own time, your own culture and most importantly, your own voice. Find a style and tone that reflects the most authentic version of yourself, even when you’re writing fictional characters and events. It’s one of the most important steps in creating your own world with your writing.
4. Make a routine and stick to it
With any craft, success demands discipline. We love the romantic notion that writers produce books in a creative frenzy after being struck by a sudden flash of brilliance. But the truth is that writers work at it, with a set, disciplined routine that demands daily writing and revising.
If you want to write, you can’t wait for the mood to strike you, or for a muse to float into your dreams. You need to work. Find a routine that suits you, mark it in your daily schedule, and get it done. This can be hard at first, but the more you do it, the more your momentum builds, and the easier it becomes. If you have trouble sticking to a routine, there are plenty of organizational and productivity tools that can help. Start with The 5 Second Journal: The Best Daily Journal and Fastest Way to Slow Down, Power Up, and Get Sh*t Done.
5. Don’t mistake mystery with obscurity
Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that just because something is difficult to understand, it will create an air of mystery that will draw the reader in. This is rarely true. Don’t sacrifice clarity for cleverness. People generally don’t enjoy reading things that are obscure, whether this effect was achieved on purpose or accidentally. Resist the urge to be complicated for the sake of being complicated.
6. Know your audience
All writing is writing to someone (even if that someone is just you). You need to keep this in mind when writing. Really consider the question: who is your audience? How can you expect them to handle certain narrative decisions, plot devices, or characters? What is their goal in reading your piece? What is your goal in speaking to the audience? If you don’t have a readily defined audience, make one up and work from there.
7. Don’t use intoxication as a creative method
The “drunken genius writer” is just a myth. Sure, there are plenty of legendary writers with equally legendary appetites for getting drunk and high, but there are a few realities that are often overlooked. For one thing, addiction kills, and when it doesn’t kill, it ruins lives and relationships. Legendary writers are no exception to the rule. Moreover, even for legendary writers, periods of greater productivity typically occurred in between (rather than during) the worst bouts of chemical excess.
It also bears noting that you’re not a legendary writer. If you think you are, you’ve probably got bigger issues to work out than this article can help with. Don’t presume that because Hunter S. Thompson or Ernest Hemingway did it, that you can do it too. If you want to write like them, you need to write; don’t go on a bender and expect brilliant prose to suddenly come pouring out.
8. Practice the craft
Writing is a skill, and like any skill, you have to practice it constantly if you want to be any good at it. This doesn't; mean, however, that you should just keep dumping words into your computer day in-day out and expect to grow. You need to practice with focus.
A number of noteworthy books address the subject of craft, and how you can work to develop yours. Some of these books are better than others. Some speak to specific audiences and some to more general audiences. Start with:
9. Reach out to others
Language is inherently social. Don’t be a bookish hermit. Meet others who are writers or who are interested in writing (especially if their interests are similar to yours). Discuss your projects, their projects, what you’ve been reading, and where you’ve been submitting. Share your work and your feedback with other writers, and hone your skills in an environment of healthy competition. Reach out to amateurs and professionals. The more people you know and interact with, the more you will grow, and the more opportunities you will encounter. Just like any other field, networking is a key to success.
10. Workshop it
The writing workshop gives you a chance to develop your work alongside other writers, sharing, critiquing, and revising with the goal of improving your work and your skills. However, you aren’t obligated to take every bit of advice that is given to you, nor need you sound like someone else in order to be successful. The key is to be open, and to treat the creative process as a dialogue. Workshops occur both inside and outside of college classrooms, so if you’re not in college, just dig around on Google and you will likely find a writing workshop that suits you.
11. Revise. Revise. Revise.
Rarely (super rarely) will your writing be “right” the first time. Sometimes you fail, but much more often, you simply need to revise… again and again. Yes, it can be tedious, but it’s a necessary part of the craft that separates writers from hobbyists and angst-filled teenagers. Learn to revise. Take a step back from your work and approach it with a critical eye. Take advice and input from others. Be ready to make substantial (and sometimes painful) revisions in the pursuit of great literature.
12. Kill your darlings
This is classic writing advice. Your darling could be a line, a scene, a poem or even a whole story. Sometimes you can become emotionally attached to a piece of writing that you are absolutely sure can be brilliant, but for one reason or another just doesn’t work. A lot of times, the reason it doesn’t work is because it’s not that good. It’s not. Really. Cut it and get on with your life. Your efforts are better spent working on something new.
13. Submit widely
If you want to get serious about writing, submit some of it for publication. Even just as an exercise, preparing work for submission can be a rewarding experience, as it forces you to really take stock of your writing, what it is doing, and who it is written for. Know what else is rewarding? Getting published! But you can’t get published if you don’t submit, so get your work out there. The best approach (assuming you are just getting started) is to do what some call “shotgun submissions.” Here, you’ll pick about 8-10 different journals or magazines and send out as much work as they allow at once.
Don’t know where to begin looking? No problem; Entropy posts a Where to Submit list quarterly, taking the guesswork out of your search. Avoid submissions that require a reading fee. On the other hand, don’t expect to make any money out of it either. Also, prepare yourself for rejections. They happen… a lot. Learn from them, and remember that literally everyone who’s ever been published has a collection of rejection letters.
Also, as a bonus tip: don’t hound publishers who reject your work. No good can come from that.
14. Don’t self-publish
This advice is largely reserved for those seeking a long-term professional career in publishing. In reality, Amazon has made self-publishing extremely easy in recent years. But if you hope to be published in earnest one day, resist the urge to self-publish, no matter how badly you want to see your writing in print. Self-publishing leaves a mark that you can’t scrub off. Getting published by a journal, magazine or press, no matter how small, acts as a stamp of approval. It means you put in the work and you’ve been vetted. This can be attractive to real publishers, kind of like job experience for your résumé. Self-publishing means you skipped a few steps, and that you don’t have a proven track record, which can in turn make it difficult to get anyone else to publish you later.
15. Go to School
All of the tips above are proven methods for growing as a writer. However, if you really want to get good at creative writing, whether you are interested in fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, you need to study it. If you want to earn a degree, there are plenty of options, including Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing and Master of Fine Arts in creative writing degrees. If you’re just looking to dabble, many colleges offer creative writing courses for non-majors.
When it comes to creative writing degrees, there is something for everybody, including traditional on-campus programs, low-residency and high-residency programs, and online degree programs. Whatever path you choose, studying creative writing at the college level can be a rewarding experience.
If you are interested in studying writing in college, an English degree could be a great way to flex your creative writing muscles while gaining a well-rounded education with great future employment potential. Read on to find out what else you can do with an English degree!